In the aftermath of a difficult event, children often express their feelings through their behavior, whether it's acting clingy, being disobedient, forgetting to do their homework, or even withdrawing. Negative behavior is often a mask for a child's anxiety, says Laurentine Fromm, M.D., a Philadelphia-based child psychiatrist and president of the Regional Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey.
As you try to help your child, remember to acknowledge his feelings and take your cue from his behavior and questions. The age-by-age advice below, courtesy of Dr. Fromm, offers more guidance about what to say and do. Of course, if your child is still anxious and you need more help, you should call your pediatrician, a mental health professional, or a school counselor.
Keep in mind that if you, yourself, are feeling overwhelmed, you shouldn't hesitate to ask friends and family members to help you with your children. "There is no reason you should cope alone," says Dr. Fromm.
Signs of distress: Acting like a baby, clinginess, sleeping problems, disobedience
What to say: At this age, children are more likely to act scared than to ask specific questions. If your toddler shows signs of distress or asks about something she's seen on TV, you can say in a reassuring tone, "Mommy and Daddy are worried because something bad happened. But we love you very much and we're not leaving you. We're going to do everything we can to keep you safe." Going into more detail may just frighten your child.
What to do: Turn off the TV when your child is around. Young children are particularly sensitive to graphic images and may not understand that a replay of the tragic events on TV is just that -- a replay. Be physically present and reassuring. Because young children are comforted by routines, try to keep up your child's normal schedule (meal times with the family, bath time with familiar toys, familiar bedtime stories). If you have a childcare provider, make sure she follows your lead and ask her to keep you informed of your child's behavior.
Signs of distress: Clinginess, acting out, wanting to talk about the events repeatedly, sleep disturbances, regressive behavior such as thumbsucking and bedwetting
What to say: Your preschooler may ask you questions about what he's inadvertently seen on TV or heard from older children. You can say, "Yes, a very bad thing happened and people were hurt. But we're safe here. Mommy and Daddy will take care of you. There are also a lot of other people whose job it is to help other people who are hurt." Children this age still need to hear from you that you will be there for them. At the same time, they have a sense of the larger world and other people. They worry about how other people are faring.
What to do: Keep the TV turned off when your child is nearby. If you can't be with him, make sure your child is with people who are familiar to him. Children this age also feel more secure with routines, so stick to his regular schedule as much as possible (family meals, naps, bedtime, and so on). In addition to verbal comfort, you can provide concrete assurances like a night light and leaving the door to his room open when it's time to sleep. Make drawing materials, toy cars and trucks, and dolls or stuffed animals available to your child and stay nearby as your child plays with them. If your child draws a picture about the recent events or acts out something that's been upsetting him with the dolls, you can say, "Can you tell me about what you drew?" or "Let's pretend -- the Baby Bear doll seems very scared, but Mother Bear doll will take care of him."
Signs of distress: Talks about the tragic events and feeling scared, headaches, stomachaches, sore throats and other signs of illness, sleep problems, loss of appetite, not wanting to leave the house, not wanting Mom or Dad to go to work
What to say: It's helpful for kids this age to hear their parents reflecting out loud about their feelings. You can say, "This is so upsetting to watch and hear about in the news. It makes me feel so sad, angry, and scared." Hearing parents talk about what they're feeling helps school-age children sort out their own emotions. You can also be reassuring and truthful at the same time. You can say, "This a very terrible thing that happened, but it's also very unusual. It's the first time in my life that anything like this has happened. And there are a lot of people in our government who are trying to make sure it doesn't happen again." You can also ask, "Where there certain things that happened in your day that seemed scary to you?" Then talk about her specific fears. For example, she may be worried about standing at the bus stop alone and waiting for the school bus. Or she may be worried about you taking a business trip out of town.
What to do: Limit the amount of TV your child sees. Make yourself more available, especially after school. For example, you can call your child's after-school program just to say hi and check in. Also, talk with your child's teacher about how the school is handling the recent tragedies. Help your child channel her feelings in a positive way. You can do something specific and personal ("Let's give Aunt Mary in New York a call and find out how she's doing today"), send a card of appreciation to the firefighters in your town, or participate in a community activity like donating food and supplies to a relief organization.
Signs of distress: Withdrawing, irritablility, argumentative behavior, sarcasm, headaches, stomachaches
What to say: Angry types of behavior or withdrawing may actually be a cover for feelings of anxiousness, hopelessness, and vulnerability. Instead of being direct ("What's wrong with you?"), talk about your own feelings: "This is an unbelievable tragedy. I'm in shock and I feel angry. It makes me wonder about the future." Teenagers have a sense of the larger context and are eager to participate in abstract discussions. By voicing your own feelings and worries, you encourage your child talk about his emotions and help him make sense of his feelings. Also keep in mind that this latest disaster comes on top of what happened at Columbine High School and other shootings at schools. You can ask, "What's going on at your school? Are other kids feeling scared? What are your teachers saying?" This is an opportunity for you to learn more about your child's world.
What to do: Make sure your child knows that you're always available to talk about what's in the news. Keep up your discussions ("What do you think the government should do?") and really listen. Teens appreciate having their opinions heard and it helps them express their feelings. You can also let your child know that these emotions take time to process -- that you can't rush to feel better. In the meantime, there are things you can do to help out and combat feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. Volunteer with your child at your house of worship or community service organization, start a fund drive for relief organizations, or write letters to your members of Congress.